Catholic TV chef has cooked for two popes

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WASHINGTON - Lidia Bastianich, even at age 68, is working like crazy.

She's on her fifth public television cooking series, "Lidia's Kitchen," and on Dec. 11, will have a Christmas special on PBS. She also has written 13 books - most of them cookbooks - has a line of commercial cookware, separate lines of sauces and made-in-Italy pastas, and a string of restaurants in New York City; Chicago; Kansas City, Mo., and even Brazil.

Yes, every seven years or so, she finds time to cook for the reigning pope.

Bastianich is an Italian-born Catholic who escaped with her family after her region in Italy was awarded to communist Yugoslavia and the Iron Curtain erected. She said she was asked to cook for Pope Benedict XVI for his 2008 visit to the United States by Archbishop Celestino Migliore, then the head of the Vatican's permanent observer mission to the United Nations, after Bastianich had done a decade's worth of charity events at the U.N. to raise money to help single-parent and rural families.

"I did some research" on Pope Benedict, she added. "His mother was a chef. So he ate good. I come from an area of Italy, a little Germanic. So I had spaetzle (a German dumpling), goulash, strudels, that's what I did for Pope Benedict. I went into his childhood flavors."

Pope Francis' needs were a bit different. "All he wanted at his bed was water and bananas," Bastianich said. "I put a few crackers there just in case."

At mealtimes, she was thinking, "He's vibrant. (I thought) big pieces of meat. Some nice rib roast, bring the whole roast out. But he wanted very simple. I guess he's on somewhat of a diet. Not a real diet but they're watching. So I thought OK, no big meat. Veal was fine, chicken was fine, fish. I thought he's Italian, too, from (the) Piedmont (region of his ancestors). They do a lot of rice and a lot of vegetables, peppers; he loves peppers, he loves squash, he loves potatoes, I did risotto, I did a big pot of soup - capon soup because it's restorative. He had soup each day, because I felt he needed that in his travels."

After lunch Sept. 25 in New York, Pope Francis "decided to come into the kitchen," Bastianich told CNS. "The Secret Service was running into the kitchen: 'The pope is coming! The pope is coming!' He just kind of floated into the kitchen. He asked, 'May I drink coffee with you?' 'Of course!' All of us, five of us, were there. He addressed each of us, asked about our family, blessed us, touched the (sign of the) cross on our forehead. Such a gentle smile, attitude," she recalled. "And then he said, 'Please pray for me.' That brought all of us to tears. This man who we ask to pray for us, he says, 'Pray for me.'"

Bastianich's first job in the United States came working in a German bakery owned by the parents of Academy Award-winning actor Christopher Walken, whom she knows as "Chris" and is one of the guests in her Christmas special.

Walken's ethnic roots, and those of the other guests at Bastianich's Christmas table - including actress-singer Rita Moreno - are explored in the hourlong special. "I think it's such a great representation of America," Bastianich said. "And you know, especially in these times, with all the immigration problems, I really feel for these people. The message is that we are all immigrants here coming from somewhere. America gives us such opportunities to really excel, but also the freedom to be who we are. We should appreciate and respect who they are."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015